PopMark Media/Studio Unknown's Confessions of a Small Working Studio—Balancing Act: Craft Vs. Business

May 2, 2011 2:16 PM

Sound designer and film recordist Kevin Kniowski

Sound designer and film recordist Kevin Kniowski

In life, there’s a lot to be said for generosity, right? It really does go a long way, and if you believe the adage “What goes around, comes around,” it’s especially poignant. However, in business, there’s a point at which going overboard with generosity means shooting yourself in the foot; it’s a delicate balance. For some reason, sound designers have earned a reputation for being some of the most “generous” folks around—at least in the eyes of filmmakers. But it only has to get obnoxiously out of hand if you let it. The sound designers featured in this month’s column have mastered the fine art of making amazing things happen within the confines of a budget. While they’ll admit they still went a little above and beyond, these composers were able to prevent themselves from total exploitation by effective communication and considerable imagination. 


I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand it when someone tells me, with absolute and excited certainty, that he or she is going to deliver on a project, only to find out later that there was no way it was ever going to happen. Lip service. If you’re a sound designer, be upfront with a filmmaker from the beginning about what you can and cannot do with the budget and timeframe you’ve been given. 

In fact, communication is largely indicative of the success or failure of a film’s audio post process. Sound designer and film recordist Kevin Kniowski of New York’s SixDotsSound knows that well. While he recognizes that he has to use restraint when taking on projects simply because his true passion for the craft can put him in the vulnerable position of going far beyond what he’s getting paid to do, he also knows that being honest about expectations is imperative.

“Fortunately, when I was approached to do audio post on Second Story Man, the filmmaker was very blunt about the budget, so I had a clear idea of what I would have to work with,” says Kniowski. “However, before I said yes or no, I read the script, watched the film and took about a week to contemplate my decision. Even though I loved it, I also had to seriously consider if the project was something I could tackle based on the issues that I would have to correct, the timeframe I had to work within and the budget I had to work with.” Kniowski says that by watching a rough cut, he can usually determine around how much time he’ll need to spend on a project, realizing that, in the end, it will take up to three times longer in reality. Ultimately, Kniowski took on the project, but it was after getting real about what would be required and having honest conversations with the filmmakers about what he would be able to deliver given the budget and time frame. 

The good news was that the film’s director, Neal Dhand of Discreet Charm Productions, was not only excellent about communicating his vision about the project, but he also had a true understanding and appreciation of the importance of sound design. While he hadn’t consulted with Kniowski during pre- or production (according to Dhand simply because he hadn’t found Kniowski yet), he definitely was thinking about audio post during the filmmaking process.

“Before I began working with Kevin, I had a lot of talks with my producers and other creatives about the sound, and things like where the music would die out and the audio cues would take precedence,” explains Dhand. “In fact, there were multiple occasions in which I was framing shots with the audio in mind. I’m not a musician or audio guy, so I couldn’t use sound tech language to tell Kevin what I was looking for. We developed our own sort of language to communicate, primarily through the emotions of a scene and the feelings the characters were experiencing.” And while Dhand admits that there may have been times in which Kniowski could have been frustrated with this approach, it wound up becoming an integral part of the process and forced the two to go through a whole range of sounds that resulted in some happy accidents. “Sometimes, we’d stumble upon a sound that wasn’t what I had originally wanted, but it totally worked,” says Dhand. “The whole experience really helped the film to evolve and pushed it to a point that I never would have imagined.”

Much like Kniowski, sound designer Tim Barker benefited exponentially from The Arbor filmmaker Clio Barnard’s ability to communicate her ideas, her respect of sound in film and his previous experience with her on a short film 10 years prior. “The great thing about Clio as a filmmaker is that she knows what’s involved in sound design and she knows what she wants,” says Barker, whose credits includes more than 50 films; his latest project is the major motion picture Deep Blue Sea, which stars Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. 

In the case of The Arbor, Barker was able to have discussions with Barnard about this very unique project prior to production. “In some ways, the audio post-production phase really started before the shooting for the film took place,” says Barker. The documentary is unusual in that the dialog was recorded without images and the actors that were used to “voice” the dialog used a playback device to lip sync their parts.

“The dialog was recorded in interviews and then pre-mixed prior to post-production.” Couple that with the fact that the budget was tight and the turnaround time was short, Barker knew that he’d need very clear direction from Barnard to pull it off. “The discussions Clio and I had enabled me to deal with the sound design elements early on, so by the time shooting had begun a lot of elements were already in place.” For instance, there were scenes that were to be shot in an abandoned hospital but, in the film, the setting was a house, and the emotional undertones that had to be created were unpleasant memories and grief. “I had the benefit of being able to talk to the filmmaker prior to shooting and be on set during production. This enabled me to think about what I could do in audio post to bring these emotions to life and tackle other challenges.”

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